As the world celebrates the life and mourns the loss of philosopher, theologian and humanitarian Jean Vanier, his teachings become ever more meaningful. Since my late teens, I have read extensively Jean’s words and have attempted to incorporate his ideas into my career as a student affairs professional in higher education. I believe his passing provides an opportunity for us in higher education to reflect concretely on his words – and, more importantly, to discern how we might incorporate them into the mission of our institutions, our various functions and programs, and how we develop relationships with our students.
As an ever-evolving area, the student affairs profession across North America has a great many theorists who continue to inform our functions. Each of these thinkers has helped to build a consistent and clear knowledge base from which we do our day-to-day work and associated programming across diverse departments.
It is my perspective that now, more than ever, Jean Vanier’s ideas can resonate in the lives of our students and the culture built by student affairs professionals on campus that supports students in their learning journey. Specifically, I believe his Five Principles of Humanity can provide a solid foundation on any campus, large or small, secular or non-secular, to build or reframe student affairs services and supports. Let me explain.
Principle 1: All humans are sacred, whatever their culture, race, religion, whatever their capacities and incapacities, whatever their strengths weaknesses may be. As student affairs professionals, we know that our student’s lives are comprised of many identities. As increased access to higher education opens it up to marginalized communities, we know it is important to meet our students where they are to provide that support, encouragement and service so they may have the opportunity to experience success. Vanier believed that “all of us need help to become all that we can be.” I believe the work of student affairs staff across all units should be focused on breaking down barriers and changing attitudes about who belongs in postsecondary education and who does not belong. This is where our students grow, and we are all better on campus for it as a result.
Principle 2: Our world and our individual lives are in the process of evolving. Education is all about evolution. What I may have thought about a topic early in my career may not necessarily be how I look at things now. It has been informed by the world around me, the campus culture and the people I interact with on a daily basis. I think about the difficult conversations we convene on campuses about identity or politics. Vanier’s ideas become more critical because they encourage us all to look at things differently and learn. Student affairs professionals must ensure respectful dialogue continues to help all students to feel heard, even if their ideas are unpopular. That is core to our mission and to how people change.
Principle 3: Maturity comes through working with others. Throughout his life, Vanier worked with others. It was Vanier’s daily interactions with people with disabilities within the L ’Arche community that informed Vanier and helped him to grow. In the same vein, it is incumbent upon us as those who work in higher education to develop our campus communities so that students can meaningfully interact with each other. Whether it is the variety of experiential learning opportunities in the community or the daily small-group interactions in residence life, we must constantly reflect on how these experiences will support our students to grow, develop and learn with one another.
Principle 4: Humans need to be encouraged to make choices. Many students come to us seeking the right answer or the proper path without thinking about the impacts of these choices or decisions. In some cases, students make decisions without regard to how some choices may affect others. Vanier believed in the idea that people “need to become responsible for ourselves and for the lives of others as well.” This specifically resonates in areas where we might be dealing with students in code of conduct situations and restorative justice. It is not enough to simply provide a sanction; it is through the process of helping students examine that choice as it relates to others around them where the learning happens.
Principle 5: In order to make choices, we need to reflect and to seek truth and meaning. Of all the five principals, this speaks to the heart and soul of what higher education is all about. It is not just about graduation and getting that high-paying career. It is critical that we encourage students to examine how their choices help them find their calling and purpose in this world. I look at the important work of academic advisors, chaplains or career counsellors in supporting students to ask questions (not just provide answers), so they can look beyond the material outcomes of their choices to inform their overall purpose in life.
This is not an exhaustive list of examples connecting Vanier’s ideas to campus. In many ways, his work can live on in so many contexts, professions and organizations, which is undoubtedly a testament to their importance to all areas society. However, in his death, Vanier provides us with yet another gift to contemplate our work in student affairs to help us make meaning for students, and to build a more just and fairer student experience for all.
Joe Henry is the dean of students at King’s University College at Western University.